Frank Hopkins, author of the best-selling Rare Old Dublin: Heroes, Hawkers & Hoors and Hidden Dublin: Deadbeats, Dossers and Decent Skins has kindly agreed to contribute to our guest blog.
Frank's son Jack, along with trebles Gavin Jones and Ferdia Peelo-Walsh, made his professional opera debut in our recent tour of The Magic Flute. Conversations in the rehearsal room led to the mention of Michael O'Kelly - Dublin's very own link to Mozart.
Jack Hopkins, far left, in the final scene of The Magic Flute, which was Mozart's last opera.
"Dublin-born Michael Kelly, also known on the continent as Ochelli or O’Kelly, was one of the foremost tenors of his day and was also an accomplished thespian and composer, and he was also one of Mozart‘s best friends.
Kelly, the eldest of fourteen children, was the son of a Mary Street wine merchant, Thomas Kelly, who was also Master of Ceremonies at Dublin Castle, and his mother was a McCabe from a wealthy Westmeath family. Both Kelly’s parents were accomplished musicians and singers and they met while his mother was attending a convent on Arran Quay.
Michael Kelly was born on Christmas day in 1762 and from an early age he and several of his siblings showed great musical promise. Michael was said to possess a powerful soprano voice and he was sent at a very early age to study with a number of Dublin’s leading music teachers. One of these was the eccentric singing master, Morland, who spent his days sleeping in a cellar and began his classes at eleven o’clock at night. It wasn’t unusual for the young Kelly to be given his music lesson at one o’clock in the morning under the direction of Morland, who was usually half out of his mind on a lethal concoction of whiskey and punch.
Kelly later studied under another singing master, Signor St. Giorgio, who had rooms at the Rotunda on Rutland (now Parnell) Square, and he revealed in later life that he once saw the great man eating peaches, nectarines and a pineapple in a Dublin fruit shop. The young Kelly said that this incident left such a deep and lasting impression on him that he at once resolved to work hard at his music so that he too, would be able to “lounge about in fruit shops, and eat peaches and pineapples as well as Signor St. Giorgio.”
Kelly was later sent to Dr. Burke’s Academy for young gentlemen and also studied under Cogan, the piano teacher, and the singing-masters Peretti and Passerini.
Kelly made his singing debut in Fishamble Street Theatre in 1777 and also performed at Crow Street theatre during that year.
On the recommendation of the famous castrato Rauzzini, Kelly’s father dispatched him to Italy to further his musical studies there and he departed Dublin on May 1st 1779 and arrived in Naples a month later, where he underwent further training.
Between 1783 and 1787 Kelly was the leading tenor at the Vienna Court Theatre and one of his greatest claims to fame was his friendship with the composer Mozart, whom he met in Vienna.
Kelly tells us that when Mozart wasn’t composing, he was ‘remarkably fond of punch’, of which he often drank copious draughts, and he also reveals that Mozart was an excellent billiard-player.
Kelly was fond of a good story and his memoirs include a humorous tale involving a Dublin saddle-maker called Lennan who fancied himself as an actor: Lennan - after much lobbying - eventually landed himself a part in a play called The West Indian of Cumberland in the role of Major O’Flaherty. Kelly describes Lennan’s debut performance as ‘truly execrable’. After the show, Lennan moved on to a watering hole called the Cockle Club, where he proceeded to get extremely intoxicated, and insisted on giving the members a repeat dose of his earlier performance. The club members had the last laugh however, when they handed him over to the parish watch, informing them that the ossified saddler had murdered Major O’Flaherty earlier in the evening. The watchmen kept Lennan locked up all night and when he was released the next day he returned to his former occupation of saddle-making.
Kelly retired from the stage in 1808, although he continued to manage the King’s Theatre, and did some directing at Drury Lane until 1820. During his final years, he suffered from severe gout and died October 9th 1826 at Margate in Kent. He was buried at St Paul’s Churchyard, Covent Garden."